So the story goes, Onesimus runs away from Philemon, and has been with Paul, taking care of him.
There’s all sorts of stuff I love about this letter, especially Paul’s funny way of ‘asking’ Philemon to release Onesimus, but really he’s telling him to.
But the biggest thing for me is how much the letter is dripping with Grace.
In Paul’s other letters we see a lot of arguments about grace, atonement, the reality of bodily resurrection, etc. But this letter has much more of a narrative feel to it, which I really enjoy.
You see Paul’s theology from other books play out in a real circumstance. There’s echoes of ‘neither slave nor free’, when Paul talks about Onesimus as a Son and a Brother rather than a slave. Onesimus is a ‘new creation’ – no longer in his old identity as a slave.
Paul has grace for Philemon, by asking him (albeit strongly) rather than just pulling authority cards (he reminds Philemon that he could though).
He has grace for Onesimus, even though he ran away – which was wrong – Paul realizes that Onesimus had a good heart in wanting to care for him while he was in prison. Paul also reminds Philemon that really he should be taking care of Paul , but asks if Onesimus could be released for that task. And although we aren’t sure from this letter how it plays out, we assume that Philemon had grace on Onesimus and followed Paul’s appeals.
Furthermore there’s a lesson in here about taking God’s will into our own hands. Onesimus could have appealed to Philemon to be allowed to go care for Paul – but he took things into his own hands and ran off. Instead of scolding him heavily in the letter, Paul just sends him back with the letter to Philemon, correction Onesimus’ mistake, and teaching him a valuable lesson. God is the one caring for Paul while in prison ultimately, no matter who he uses to do it.
So often I see something needing to be done, and try to take it into my own hands, or gripe about who should be doing something about it that isn’t. When the better thing to do I see in this letter is to commit those things to the Lord’s capable hands, and he will provide according to what he sees as the current need. This happens all to often in ministry, we see a need and stretch ourselves too thin trying to cover everything. When I see something like that this week, I’m committing to pray for God’s provision in those areas, rather than taking things into my own hands. The right thing done the wrong way is never God’s plan.